When I first came to Oak Ridge, they were using a traditional Sunday School model. Having been engaged in strong Sunday School ministries for decades, I was an ardent supporter of the SUNDAY SCHOOL model. There are many real benefits to Sunday School.
However, when we launched our first 40 Days of Purpose campaign we were blown away by the response. We learned that a huge portion of our adults took part in launching a small group in their home and enjoyed it so much that we continued to run both Sunday School AND small groups for a few years.
Then, over the next few years, we grew…a LOT…RAPIDLY!
We quickly discovered that we could multiply groups in pace with the growth, but we could never expand Sunday School space as quickly or affordably. It would have taken millions of dollars and years to build the space we needed to accommodate the growth we experienced.
Within 3 years our small groups were growing at a pace that doubled our Sunday School growth. Since we needed the Sunday School rooms for our growing children’s ministry, we decided to transition to 100% Small Groups and we’ve never looked back.
At best our Adult Sunday School attendance was approximately 50% of adult worship. In comparison, nearly 94% of our adult crowd participated in Small Groups during our last spiritual growth campaign!
Small Groups can grow into a powerful extension of the mission of the church, but it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes hard work and intentional focus to build a strong small group ministry.
Here are some of the keys that have made our Small Group ministry so successful.
12 Keys to a Powerful Small Groups Ministry
Although Sunday School runs year-round, we’ve found that the majority of our target (unchurched families) need a rhythm that matches their life. Therefore, we closely follow the school year for our small group semesters. Of course, groups that want to meet in the “down seasons” are free to do so, but we find that about 90% of our groups follow the school calendar. There are several benefits to following a school calendar rhythm:
- It allows groups to refresh and reinvigorate, and even recapture those “special” group members that were beginning to wane.
- It gives the group host home a much needed break.
- It creates a great rhythm for starting/restarting the group’s ministry allowing new folks a clear time for jumping in!
One of the keys to building a powerful Small Group ministry is making group life one of the key spiritual growth steps for your church. Participating in a small group should be presented as just as important as getting baptized, reading your Bible or giving. It’s a fundamental part of following Jesus.
We believe that biblical community (fellowship) is one of the five foundational purposes of the church. Therefore, we periodically do an entire series of teaching the importance of community in spiritual formation and what real fellowship is supposed to look like.
A picture is worth a thousand words. The way to paint a picture of the value of small groups is by telling the stories of small group life. I make it a point to share as often as possible how small groups serve together, worship together, and do life together. Nothing is more powerful than when a small group huddles around one of their members who’s gone through one of life’s traumas. The love, encouragement, and support are life changing!
Small groups rise or fall on structure. Here are 3 structural components that make or break your small groups ministry:
The model you choose determines if you win or lose. Carbon-copying a model from some “successful” church may or may not fit your church’s DNA. In the early days we used models that helped us “feel” that we were in control. We were afraid to let go and empower our groups. We had a 1,000 “what ifs.” When we decided to release control and build trust our groups exploded! You can have control or growth, but you can’t have both! We use the HOST model for small groups and it has been working for several years!
b. Entry Points
It really doesn’t help to have a small groups ministry if you can’t get anyone in it. Designing and executing a comprehensive plan for on-ramps into a group is a critical factor. We use the following entry points:
- Sermon Action Step – creating an intentional action step from a message.
- Connect Card Signup – having a checkbox on the Connect Card that can be used to follow up.
- Growth Track – explaining the purpose and expectation for every member to be connected into a small group as a part of the membership class.
- Connection Events – planning special entry point events at least twice a year like a tailgate party in the parking lot hosted by all the groups where attenders can get to know people and join their small group on the spot!
- Kiosk – have a manned kiosk in the lobby every single week to help people get connected into a small group.
I’ve talked to so many pastors over the years who have talked about their “small” groups that have 15, 20, or even 30 people in a group. That’s not a small group, that’s a small church! A small group needs to be large enough to allow for 3-4 people to call out without needing to cancel, and small enough that everyone can share and get to know each other. Our suggested group size is 8-14 members. The best meetings are usually when around 10 people are there. A good rule of thumb is to size the group where everyone participates but no one dominates.
Americans like options. The average grocery store in America has nearly 40,000 items to choose from. The average church offers two: take it or leave it.
One of the reasons a small group ministry can become capped is because there simply aren’t enough choices. The American family today is busier than ever before. If you want more people to participate in small groups, you need to create more options. Options such as different days, times, locations and group affinity open new doors for more people to walk through.
One of the most common mistakes church leaders make is to think that small groups is just another name for Bible Studies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bible studies focus on information. Small groups focus on transformation. Bible studies center on diving deep into the text. Small groups center around diving deep into the lives of the participants. The desired outcome of a Bible study is that people know more. The desired outcome of a small group is that the people grow more.
Of course, our small groups use the Bible and want to learn, but the greatest level of growth happens when people begin to open their hearts and share their lives with each other. I like to say that our groups are “Fellowship heavy and Discipleship light.” I know, I know, some people will see that as some sort of shallow, sell-out Christianity, but I’ve known too many bible scholar believers that could name all the kings of Judah but were still mean as a snake! According to the Bible, the metric for maturity is love! (1 Corinthians 8:1)
Okay, so small groups are not Bible studies, but surely, we use biblical content, right? YES! We want our small group members to be growing in their knowledge of the truth. Therefore, we work hard to plan, prepare and distribute great small group content. We’ve found that there are three principles that guide the best small group curriculum:
1) The material aligns with the church’s mission, vision, and culture. It’s kind of weird if the messages on Sunday tend to be topical and culturally relevant, but the Small Group curriculum is more academic and expositional.
2) The material connects in some way to the messages on Sunday. This is often referred to as Sermon-Based Small Groups.
3) Most importantly, we’ve found that alignment and unity are best achieved when the SG curriculum comes from the church’s teaching pastors. The principle here is that trust follows truth. When small groups are using materials that come from outside the church’s leadership, then members tend to think of the church’s teaching pastors as just one voice among many instead of their trusted pastor. This tends to decrease member loyalty. In addition, we’ve found that most of our people want to be taught by their own pastor and not someone they’ve never heard of or don’t have a connection to.
Finally, for small groups to truly be successful, they must become a part of the church’s overall culture. Here are some of the ways we enculturate group life:
a. Small groups get mentioned constantly in messages and communications.
b. We tell every new member, “If you’re not in a group you’re out of the loop!” It’s an expectation of membership.
c. Every staff member including the Lead Pastor participates in a small group.
d. We treat the small group participants as the “real body” of the church. That means communication, mobilization, and assimilation are all accomplished in and through the small groups ministry of the church.
e. Because our small group leaders are investing so heavily into the life of the church, we meet with them twice a year and provide them with an “inside scoop” of everything we are planning for the next 6 months and then open the floor for a Q & A.
Every pastor knows that life happens. It’s just a matter of time until life happens to every single person in their congregation. Whether it’s a divorce, diagnosis, or death in the family, people are going to need friends that can step in and love them through whatever life throws at them. Since no one pastor could ever provide all the care for every person in their church, small groups become a pastor’s best friend! Groups are the front line of pastoral care in our church. Whenever life happens to one of our people, within seconds you will hear someone say, “What small group are they in?”
Our goal is for people to truly do life together. For groups to work the way we desire, people must feel safe to share their lives with the group. Therefore, we use a small group covenant that we ask every person to sign and agree to. Our small group covenant focuses on three areas:
a. CONFIDENTIALITY – what’s said in the group stays in the group!
b. COMMITMENT – we ask group members to be all in during the semester. You cannot build real relationships by attending group haphazardly.
c. CARE – a true friend steps in when everyone else steps out. We ask our groups to truly love one another and be there for each other through the ups and downs.
Small groups are one of the most essential ministries of the church. It’s worth all the time, energy, and investment that we put into it and we receive twice the blessing as we watch the body truly be the body of Christ.